10. CAN MELBOURNE REMAIN A FORCE, POST-CAP SCANDAL?
When Melbourne struggled last decade following Chris Anderson’s departure, their crowds dropped and calls for them to be punted reached their zenith. This year they’ve lost Greg Inglis, Ryan Hoffman, Jeff Lima, Brett Finch, Brett White, Aiden Tolman and Willie Isa. Coach Craig Bellamy has two new assistants, Kevin Walters and David Kidwell. Their ability to lift players and turn them into superstars will be sorely tested. On the plus side, the Storm have four home games in the first five weeks. Whether rugby league has deep enough roots in the Victorian capital to sustain an unsuccessful team is a question they hope does not need to be answered this year.
9. WILL BRISBANE RETURN TO THE FINALS?
In 2010, Brisbane missed the finals for the first time in 19 years. Their marquee summer signing, Greg Inglis, was supposed to reassure fans and sponsors that that was a mere glitch. But the Broncos soon got the GI Blues and despite the return of Justin Hodges from long-time injury, the glamour club of the NRL will again be up against it this year. Coach Ivan Henjak blooded some outstanding talent last campaign and, led by Matt Gillett, those players will have to continue their rapid rises this winter. Brisbane is now the world capital of our game but the local NRL franchise faces challenges on a few fronts. There’s a new bid for inclusion in the premiership coming from their doorstep, with their most loyal and generous backers – the Thoroughbreds – said to be involved. There’s a new CEO. And like Melbourne, there’s not the certainty about their competitiveness that there once was.
8. CAN AUSTRALIA RESTORE SOME PRIDE BEFORE THE WORLD CUP?
NO-ONE is questioning anymore whether New Zealand are our true world champions. The stunning Four Nations final triumph has buried the days when Australia only had to trot across the sideline to win a Test match – and rugby league is so much healthier for it. But with Australia taking next spring off – as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with players – 2011 is the last chance the green and golds have to restore some pride before the 2013 World Cup in the UK. Tim Sheens’ hopes of being coach for that trek may also rest on a strong performance in the Anzac Test followed by nothing less than a win at the Four Nations in England and Wales at the end of the year. One hopes Wales fair better than France and PNG in the problematic fourth posse, by the way…
7. WILL THE INDEPENDENT COMMISSION BECOME OPERATIONAL AND WILL IT MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE?
DAVID Gallop has rejected speculation the Independent Commission won’t happen for a year. News Limited and the ARL are apparently already selecting commissioners. But at the time of writing, the new season was about to kick off without it. The possible impact on television rights talks and an expansion decision is a real worry. How can we add teams to the competition without the commission and will the current administration get the best price for TV? But the second concern is whether the IC will do what it’s supposed to. Two other sports with independent commissions are soccer and AFL. Soccer is a sport largely reliant on internationals and AFL is a club-based set-up. Can we find the right commissioners to strike a balance between both?
6. WHICH TEAMS – IF ANY – WILL BE ADMITTED TO THE NRL?
THE bid for a second Brisbane team has emotions running high, with some suggesting it’s “obscene” given the recent floods in Queensland. But money talks and last year consultants LEK told the clubs that going to new areas would not necessarily add to the value of the competition in the eyes of broadcasters. NRL chief executive David Gallop told RLW in 2010 that he favoured Perth and Central Coast – two areas that have hosted teams in the past. Central Queensland appears to be firming, too, with their indefatigable owner Geoff Murphy and CEO Denis Keeffe. Wellington and Port Moresby – name your own price. One way or another, we should have news this year on if the premiership is expanding, when it’s expanding and – hopefully – where it’s expanding to.
5. HAVE WE SEEN THE LAST OF BETTING SCANDALS?
AS embarrassing for the game as the investigation into the NQ-Canterbury game was, imagine if the sting had come off? Or the outcome of a game had been influenced? Rugby league continues to snuggle up closer and closer to betting – witness the renaming of CUA Stadium – but no-one can argue it has the same extent of anti-rorting infrastructure as racing does. The experience overseas indicates that things will get worse before they get better until an individual or team is caught match-fixing or influencing a result and is severely punished. This will be one of the big issues of 2011 – whether it is also one of the big stories is down the integrity of the players and the efforts of the authorities.
4. WILL PARRAMATTA RISE AGAIN: It’s a tough school, the one that sacks a coach 12 months after qualifying for a grand final. Parramatta’s internal politics continue to frustrate and annoy and into this swirling tornado comes new coach Stephen Kearney. ‘Mooks’ has done a sensational job with the Kiwis but will have to deal with unfamiliar obstacles at a club that seems to have outspoken former greats and would-be coup masterminds speaking publicly every second day. Nathan Cayless, Eric Grothe, Feleti Mateo and Krisnan Inu are gone while new signings Reni Maitua and Carl Webb were written off before setting foot on O’Connell Street. And as for the publicity Brad Murray’s been getting….
3. CAN THE DRAGONS MAINTAIN THEIR EXCELLENCE FROM 2010?ST GEORGE Illawarra climbed an almighty mountain by winning their first premiership in 2010. Jeremy Smith, Neville Costigan and Luke Priddis will be significant losses – but not significant enough to affect expectations of another title. It all starts on February 27 with the World Club Challenge against the only team that challenges them as our sport’s most famous – Wigan. Recovering from the trip – somewhat rushed to fit in the Charity Shield – will be coach Wayne Bennett’s first job. The unavailability of WIN Stadium – something of a fortress for the joint venture – for the first half of the season will be his next hurdle. Whether the Dragons can rely on criticism of their style for motivation this year is also doubtful. Their game will have to develop.
2. CAN NSW BREAK QUEENSLAND’S ORIGIN DOMINANCE?
EVEN in the pre-Origin days before 1980, when NSW teams were full of the nation’s best, the Blues domination was not much greater than Queensland’s is now. OK, the scorelines were bigger but the run of wins for the Maroons in the last half decade is about to break records older than Origin itself and has called for desperate measures. Coaching NSW is the right job at the right time for Ricky Stuart, whose representative clipboard career was rudely interrupted after the 2008 World Cup final. Appointing him beyond one season is also a master stoke by the NSWRL, hopefully putting paid to the quick-fix solutions too often adopted by the Blues. But getting average New South Welsman to be as passionate about Origin as Queenslanders? That may be a bridge too far.
1. 1. WHO WILL WAYNE BENNETT GRACE WITH HIS PRESENCE IN 2012?
YOU may be surprised to see we haven’t mentioned South Sydney so far. That’s because we think Wayne Bennett will be there in 2012. John Lang has revealed recently that he was only ever going to be in the post for two seasons and the amount of money Souths are willing to spend off the field should win them Saint Benny. However, Newcastle, North Queensland, Central Queensland and the new Brisbane franchise are all keen, meaning Bennett’s plans will give us the year’s main soap opera. And don’t forget Clive Churchill Medallist Darius Boyd, who told us after the grand final he would probably go wherever his mentor does. There’ll be some nervous fullbacks around the place as well as coaches.